Thoughts on Hair Covering

A good friend shared this article with me last night. Since my husband’s computer is in the shop we’ve been sharing screen time on mine, and I’ve been reading and responding to much fewer articles than normally, but I thought this article about hair covering was worth an opinion.

I empathize with this writer’s religious ambivalence and desire to not portray herself one way while really feeling another. Putting all aspects of your life in harmony is very important in developing as a holistic, happy, and healthy human being. I also empathize with her specific struggle because I also find covering my hair a terribly hard thing to do.  It is also hard to get used to. Also I completely agree with Ms. Ross’s observations of the ironies of women who wear sheitels while also donning skin-tight skirts and stilettos. So I see why this writer’s decisions make sense for her.

As an aside, I don’t think the difficulties of hair covering are talked about – and mourned, really – enough in our circles. I certainly wasn’t prepared for it before I got married. Since it was something that everyone did, I didn’t realize how difficult it would be, how long-lasting and drastic of a lifestyle change it really was.

Ultimately, however, I believe in maintaining mesorah, tradition, along with halacha. I don’t know enough about the validity of certain “modern” hair covering tactics (like the half-pony fall, the wide or thin headbands, etc.) to make an educated statement about them, but they don’t seem to me to be part of the mainstream mesorah. I am also more concerned with halachic mesorah than cultural habits that people practiced in earlier decades. “My grandmother never covered her hair” does not sit well with me as an argument.

My reason for sticking to mesorah is actually played out within this article. From Ms. Ross’s own description of her religious progression, you can see that once she let go of maintaining one detail of halacha (covering part of her hair instead of the whole of it), more and more followed soon after (until she allowed herself to eat a salad in a nonkosher restaurant). In my mind, this is what happens once you decide that traditional halacha is not for you, that everything is open to re-interpretation by people (even yourself!) who might not necessarily be trained to make halachic decisions and keep everything in straight perspective.

I’m happy that Ms. Ross was able to find balance within herself. I worry, however, that this is not as positive a phenomenon as she would like to make it out to be. The way she describes her progression seems as if she learned to become comfortable with how she is, where she is, which I believe is the antithesis of growth. Or rather, that she has found a community that counts growth toward holistic balance as the root of one’s spiritual and religious life.

And this I can’t agree with. While I believe it’s important to be comfortable with yourself, I don’t see how that is helpful as a central tenet of Judaism. One only grows when they reach a point of some discomfort inside themselves. The very nature of our relationship with God depends on it.

The Aliyah Question

It’s especially relevant at this time of year. Certainly among Anglos in Israel (and possible French-, Spanish-, Russian-, or any-foreign-tongue-speakers, but I wouldn’t know) the most popular conversation kickstarter is who is keeping one day vs. two days.

In every country but Israel, the Jewish holidays of Sukkos and Shemini Atzeres are celebrated for two days each. Situated at opposite ends of a week of “intermediate,” quasi-holiday days, this makes for quite a lot of Yom Tov. Especially when the calendar falls out, like it does this year, with each of these two days ending on Friday evening, which of course is Shabbos, extending the prohibitions against labor until Saturday evening (creating the so-called three-day Yom Tov).

Israelis, however, celebrate these holidays for just one day each, the way they were celebrated way back when we had a Temple and the majority of Jews lived in Ancient Israel. The difference between the Israel and non-Israel celebrations has to do with the way the calendar used to be set every year and ensuing concerns that those outside of Israel wouldn’t know which day the holiday really was. They began keeping two days so that either/or would count. Even though we have a set calendar, those outside Israel still keep two days for each of the major holidays. (This, of course, is an overview of the topic.)

However, what happens when a non-Israeli visits Israel for the holidays makes for an interesting question. There are many different opinions as to whether they should keep one day or two, involving a number of factors. Some common factors that would allow a non-Israeli to keep one day holidays in Israel are whether he always spends these holidays in Israel, or whether he owns property in Israel. I’ve always understood that each person should ask his rabbi concerning whether his personal circumstances allow him to keep one day. I’ve encountered families who had lived in Israel for four years who keep two days because they intend to return to their lands of origin, and I’ve encountered families who live abroad but keep one day because their parents own property in Israel, and everything in between.

In our particular Kollel program, most families are keeping one day (many of the families have made aliyah and consider themselves to be living permanently in Israel). This year, for the first time ever, so am I.

And I’m conflicted. We have not fully decided to live in Israel and have -tentative- plans to return to the States at the end of this year. But because we are considering staying, because we will be in Israel for all the major holidays this year, and because we are no longer dependent on our parents’ American salaries…we get to keep one day. And that I’m okay with, except that  heading out to the grocery store while other families are eating their festive meals in the communal sukkah makes a stronger statement than I’m comfortable making at this point in time.

It says, I’m staying.

While in truth I’m saying, not so fast.

I think Israel’s continued safety and good health is vitally important to the future of the Jewish people. I could even concede the point that the future of the Jewish people is in Israel and not any other country. Too, there is a commandment for us to settle the land of Israel. And of course, the Hebrew and the holiday messages on buses, and the strangers who help you in the street, and the way Christmas and New Year’s are completely downplayed while Sukkos and Chanukah and Purim are prevalent and palpable forces is beautiful and nothing to be taken for granted.

And yet.

Something pulls me back to America. Something inside me balks at the bureaucracy, the lines, the discomfort and inconvenience of…well, everything. The poor manufacturing quality and customer service (our Internet problem is still not solved, even after Technician Visit #5). Not to even begin entertaining the much more difficult questions of the taxes, the job system, the education system, and the language I can’t easily speak, which makes every chore that much harder to accomplish, the disdain of those natives who -still- despise English speakers that much harsher, and yet the reward of accomplishment that much sweeter.

In part I began this blog to record my experiences in Israel, good and bad, so that perhaps when it comes time for us to make the decision I will be able to use the breadth of my time here to parse out a clear answer for myself. Of course I worry that there won’t be one.

Keeping one day encompasses my ambivalence about the aliyah question. It’s been both a positive and negative experience. On one hand, after preparing for and keeping a three-day Rosh Hashana, doing the same for one day of Sukkos was giddyingly easy. On the other hand, however, I am terribly attached to the way I grew up in America. I like welcoming Yom Tov knowing that it is a two-day break from ordinary life. This makes it more than a regular Shabbos, because it’s twice as long. I like traveling a distance to visit with family for the holidays, knowing that the long trips are worth it because we will be together for two days instead of one, like a regular Shabbos. I like that if I was tired or sick or not paying attention on the first day of the holiday, I get a second chance. Here, it’s like you blink and it’s gone.

You have to focus differently here, to value time differently here, and it’s hard to let go of the values you acquired growing up, even if they are consequential and not essential to your ultimate values.

Messages for Jewish and YU Student Journalism

*** Edit: I wrote this post assuming that the survey in question was research for an article intended for publication in a YU student newspaper. The public announcements pointed in that direction, but I learned afterwards that Ms. Sominski’s research was in preparation for an article assigned as schoolwork. This begs (screams, pleads) the question of why YU responded so harshly to a class assignment, but does not negate the need for balance and sensitivity in her survey as discussed in item 2.

I also believe the items below have legs, irrespective of Ms. Sominski’s intentions for her research and article.

 

Okay, I feel the need to weigh in on the sex-survey-YU-scholarship-revocation situation because in my Facebook feed I see only one set of opinions being voiced, which strikes me as unfair.

Below are three messages I can see based on the facts on the ground, which are, at present, a handful of outraged Facebook posts (some invoking humor, some an outpouring of love to the student who was affected, but outraged nonetheless). So, as a disclaimer, I know this is not a well-researched opinion. Regardless, people are speaking up in support of Ms. Sominski based on these few facts. When in Rome…

 

1) Dialogue should be a common goal.

It may be time for a discussion about promiscuity within the YU student body. I’ve been out of YU for just a little while, so I wouldn’t know. But I think we can all agree that an important opportunity is being missed here by both parties.

Sex survey + heavy-handed YU response + outraged Facebook comments = 0 dialogue.

Ms. Sominski instigated her survey because of deeply-held beliefs. I don’t know her well at all but from reading the survey (both last week when she originally posted it and again this morning) and the flurry of recent Facebook activity I imagine that they read something like the following: Freedom of expression and sexual expression, free press, individuality, embracing modernity. YU students act promiscuously and we should talk about it instead of pretending things like that don’t happen here.

YU, too, acted out of deeply-held beliefs, first and foremost of which was probably “protect the institution.” This on its own is insulting (and worthy of further discussion).

Edit: YU’s response seems wildly out of proportion to the incident, almost to the point that we wonder if there is more to the story, perhaps even something on YU’s part that Ms. Sominski is unaware of. Given the facts on the ground, though, it seems that YU acted impulsively and has yet to explain their decision or give Ms. Sominski an opportunity for appeal – a further wrong.

However, protecting the institution also on some level means protecting Jewish ideals, namely that consensual sex is great so long as it’s between a married couple at the proper time, according to halacha. We know people are not perfect, but if students are acting in opposition to halacha, why flaunt it in a public forum?

Were a true discussion to take place, Ms. Sominski and like-minded friends could discuss promiscuity on campus, expressing their beliefs and different opinions on promiscuous behavior, while then giving a YU-appointed rav or official (or both) the chance to explain theirs. The forum would probably end without either side convincing the other to fully take on the other’s beliefs, but hopefully some measure of understanding or at least of being heard would have taken place.

The current action-reaction cycle does not create meaningful dialogue.

 

2) Do Your Due Diligence
***Edit: Though the survey was preliminary research for an article that was assigned for a course, I don’t think that negates the need for balanced, careful research on a sensitive subject. The survey was very poorly done.

First of all, It was sent to a completely un-random sample of Facebook friends rather than a true random sampling of students or the entire student body. Aside from smaller errors (bits of it ending up in Russian, and needing to be grammar-proofed once more), the survey was missing a number of important data collection questions like “how old are you,” “how many semesters have you been at YU,” “how much religious (Jewish) instruction have you had,” “do you believe that being shomer negiah is an ideal,” etc. An upgraded Survey Monkey account could have allowed more questions to  be added. (I have been told that there are discounts available when Survey Monkey is used for educational purposes, but have not checked into this)

Furthermore, the survey was explicit to the point of being shocking and offensive to students who would have selected the options “I was Shomer/et negiah and still am” or “I was Shomer/et negiah and am re-considering” in response to the first question. With an upgraded account, Ms. Sominski could have diverted the survey takers based on their answer to the first question, creating two (or three) similar sets of questions based on the taker’s experience. This would ensure that more students would be comfortable completing the survey.

Edit: If Ms. Sominski’s intention for the survey was to break through writer’s block, to use it as preliminary research for a “draft of a draft” of an article for class, posting it publicly on Facebook was not the proper platform. 

Finally, there are a number of university officials who provide guidance to student journalists (Edit: whose time could surely be made available even to students working on a class assignment). When a student wants to broach a sensitive subject, and approaches it with care, intelligence, and yes, sensitivity, YU is happy to discuss the parameters for doing so, ie. what will not get you into trouble. Ms. Sominski could have approached a YU official and avoided the shock and pain of having her residence scholarship revoked. She would have been given clear guidelines, and perhaps even redirection to a sociology or psychology professor who could have helped with that survey revision.

A sensitive subject deserves to be treated with care.

 

3) Actions, on Facebook or off, have consequences.

Of course, you are allowed to write what you want, but this whole situation is a sharp reminder that actions have consequences. This is actually the whole point of journalism. But sometimes actions have unintended consequences. Remember when the Beacon Girl article got that paper’s funding pulled two years ago? Remember when a Commentator article about YUNMUN last year got a TABC rebbe fired? So yes, it’s an obvious message but bears repeating.

Edit: YU’s consequences seem so out of proportion to the incident that it is absolutely no wonder that no one, especially Ms. Sominski, could have predicted them.

I hope Ms. Sominski continues to have the courage to stick through despite the unintended consequences and wish her the best of luck in procuring other funding for her residence at Stern.

Because, finally, I am not completely convinced that YU is against their rights in revoking her residence scholarship. Like many Catholic colleges have moral codes for their students (without protests and outrage), shouldn’t a Jewish college also be allowed to dictate the moral codes it sets for its students? Shouldn’t a university be allowed to revoke a scholarship it had granted?

It’s not so simple. I don’t think there is any clear good or bad guy to this story. I think it comes back to inviting meaningful dialogue. I hope that the situation can be turned around so that this objective can be reached, this time, that we shouldn’t have to wait until the next time someone tries again, and the next, and the next.

Internet Installation Saga

So we sign up for Internet with one of the big telecommunications moguls here in Israel. We select our service and pay online, scheduling installation for that Wednesday.

Come Wednesday afternoon, the guy doesn’t show up. I call the company and am told that “they couldn’t schedule the technician so we’re going to have to reschedule,” which we do, for the next afternoon.

Thursday afternoon, technician visit #2 happens. He eats a banana, sets up the modem, and says, “In four hours, call *3014 and they’ll set you up on the Internet.”

What do you mean, didn’t you just set us up?

“No no, it’s not ready yet, you call and they’ll do it.”

Okay….we roll our eyes and say it’s Israel, what else did you expect. We were invited to a wedding that night so we didn’t call to set up the Internet on Thursday night.

We make the call on Friday morning before we leave to spend Shabbos with my sister-in-law. The technician on the phone talks me through a bunch of steps (including a “surprise” hidden fee; “What do you mean, I have to choose an ISP. Aren’t you the ISP??”) and we’re just about set up when he asks me if a certain light on the modem is on. It’s not.

Well, it should be. So he says he’ll call the main company and then call me back (isn’t he with the company? Nope, he’s with the ISP division of the company and has to talk to the infrastructure division. Silly American. We do things differently in this country). Surprise! He doesn’t.
DH calls them back to yell but is received by someone who doesn’t speak English and so the yelling doesn’t really go so well (and then they terminate the call). So I call back and explain the problem to someone else, who schedules technician visit #3 for that Monday afternoon
“You don’t have anything earlier?”
“I can send someone today.”
“We’re leaving for Shabbos in 15 minutes. You can’t send someone on Sunday?” Sunday is an ordinary workday in Israel, it wouldn’t be unusual to-
“No, we have nothing on Sunday.”

So, okay, fine. Visit #3 takes place between 3 and 5 on Monday. Except that at about 3:30 DH calls me to tell me he just got a voicemail message from someone speaking Hebrew and it would probably be best for me to call the company just in case. Knowing the poor cell reception I’ve been getting with my old cell phone, I do, and they tell me that the technician tried to call me, and then they called DH, but no one answered, so he decided he couldn’t, like, do something as radical as come up to knock on our door, and so he left.

“Can you send him back?”

No, no, the call is closed. The day’s practically over, anyway. We have to reschedule.

Oh, but wait. This person spends a little longer with me on the phone and discovers that the modem we were given at visit #2 is not compatible with the Internet speed we purchased (we opted for a faster Internet speed). Yay! Problem solved. We hope that the technician scheduled for tomorrow will bring us the right modem.

Technician #4 does not bring us a new modem, but he does confirm that the modem is not correct, and he does get it to work. So now we have internet but not at the speed we purchased, but this is indeed an improvement

So I call the company again and schedule a delivery of a new modem for Wednesday morning. Of course, this delivery guy won’t install it for us.

“It’s easy, you just call 166 and they will talk you through it.”

And I’m betting we’ll need technician visit #5…and it’s still unclear whether or not they are going to bill us for having a) Internet, and b) faster Internet for all this time.

FRUSTRATION SQUID OF ANGER
“It’s Israel.”

No really, once stuff gets done i feel a lot better. It’s just getting it done that takes forever. That’s how these first few weeks have gone here. This country is not known for its customer service.

Apparently, though, that’s starting to change. Some new telecommunications companies have cropped up in the last three years or so, and the competition is keeping prices down and forcing the moguls and newcomers alike to deliver better services. So…maybe? That’s all good in my book. This ridiculousness is just too much to handle more than once.

Collective Yom Kippur

I’m still on a spiritual high from Yom Kippur, which happens to be my favorite holiday of the whole year (no joke). I love the solemnity, the songs, spending the day immersed in prayer, and the wonderful feeling of knowing (hoping?) at the end of the day that Gd has looked into each of my actions and has forgiven them.

Something hit me this year towards the end of Neilah, the final prayer in the day of prayer that is Yom Kippur. I’ve always found this to be an incredibly moving time. The congregation will plead and scream these words, aware that this is their last chance for their prayers to reach Gd.

The men in our yeshiva were passionately screaming out the final prayers and I realized that the Beis Medresh window was open and that anyone passing outside would certainly hear the tumult. Then it occurred to me that no one would think this strange, as this is Israel and the land is dotted with synagogues of all sizes that, as the sun was setting on Yom Kippur, would also be in the midst of their Neilah prayers too.

For a moment I imagined these powerful prayers ascending with passion at that moment from all the shuls in Israel and felt a palpable confidence that with an entire nation speaking to Him, pleading with Him, Gd would surely respond.

Firsts

Recently I’ve noticed many firsts in my life. I’m newly married (for the first and hopefully only time), which in itself brings a whole host of firsts aside from the obvious: my first home, first of many times cooking chicken and meat dishes, our first time experiencing a family loss together, first time taking care of DH when he’s unwell.

It is also our first time traveling internationally together. We have recently arrived in Israel to spend a year in learning. This too comes with its own concomitant list of firsts: my first encounter with Israeli government and office systems by being responsible for arranging student visas, health insurance, gas masks, city transportation cards, bank accounts, and cell phone service, my first time having groceries delivered, my first time doing sponja and line-drying laundry on a regular basis. Though we’ve only been here a month I can sense my rudimentary Hebrew language skills improving seven-fold, which is a first. And last night we celebrated our first (six-month) anniversary.

And so what better time could there be to start my first blog? I don’t often leap into making decisions, but with so much new experience re-forming me inside and and forming our baby family it’s definitely a good time to throw a new responsibility into the mix.